MS, RDN, CDN
Allison is a registered dietitian who holds a Master’s in Nutrition and Physical Fitness. She also loves helping families get creative with their wellness choices.
Many new parents wonder if they should be feeding on demand (following baby’s cues for when and how much to feed) or on a schedule (feeding baby at timed intervals for a specific length of time). The answer is… it depends on your baby’s age.
Early on in your baby’s life, it’s best to feed on demand. If they are looking and cueing to feed, it is what their bodies actually need for growth and development. Let them drink up!
Newborns in particular need to eat around the clock (a minimum of 8 times per day!), and may feed anywhere from 10 minutes to 60 minutes. While breastfed babies typically nurse every 2 hours in the newborn phase, formula fed infants can sometimes go 3-4 hours between feeds. However, it’s important to follow your baby’s hunger and fullness cues rather than the clock to feed your baby adequately.
Signs that your baby is hungry and ready to eat include becoming more alert, putting his hands or fingers on or in his mouth, making sucking motions or sounds, sticking out his tongue, smacking his lips or rooting (moving his jaw and mouth or head in search of the bottle). In the first year of life your baby has very high calorie needs in proportion to his small body size. Babies typically increase their weight by 200% in the first year and quadruple their weight by 24 months! All of this growth is dependent on good feeding practices. Making sure you are there and ready to feed whenever your baby decides will ensure adequate growth, nutrient intake and will promote the essential bonding moments that happen between baby and mom.
When healthy babies are able to feed to their appetite without any coaxing by parents they will grow at a rate that is right for them. It can be tempting to encourage your baby to continue breastfeeding or finish a bottle you’ve prepared; however, unless your doctor has instructed you to do so, it’s better to allow your baby to guide the amount, pace and frequency of feeds. You will learn how much breast milk or formula to offer your baby by watching how much he typically eats.
At around 3-4 months old, you may notice a predictable feeding pattern emerge. For example, your baby may begin to space out feedings and may eat more at each feeding. This type of pattern is helpful in creating a schedule and routine but don’t assume that this is the way feeding will go from now on because babies are constantly growing and their needs will change frequently to support that growth.
The schedule may still shift from day to day and will continue to change as your baby grows. It is normal for your baby’s food intake to vary by about 20% each day. A baby is a little person after all; some days we’re hungrier than others, so continue to watch for your baby’s hunger cues and make adjustments accordingly.
At around 6 months old, when babies typically begin solids, a more consistent feeding schedule often develops. Sometimes these schedules mimic parents eating schedules or daycare schedules but just as often they don’t, so be prepared to meet baby’s schedule rather than have him meet yours. By 6 months most babies’ feeding schedules consist of a breast milk or infant formula plus solid food feeding every 2.5 to 3 hours.
If you’re in the thick of the first 12 weeks, take a deep breath – as with all things baby, you are both still learning and things definitely get easier over time.
Remember that your baby will likely start to space out his feedings in a more predictable pattern after 3-4 months.
Feed your newborn a minimum of 8 feedings in a 24 hour period
Your hungry baby may even feed up to 12 times or more in 24 hours during the first few weeks of life. A minimum of 8 feeds will both give your baby all the calories needed to grow.
Follow your baby’s hunger and fullness cues for the first 6 months
A consistent feeding schedule may not emerge until your baby is 6 months old. Until then, follow his hunger and fullness cues. Remember that your baby needs to eat frequently (about every 2 to 4 hours), especially throughout the first 3 months. Watch for your baby’s natural schedule, but do not force it or stick to a rigid schedule.
Don’t force feedings
Your baby knows what his body needs so allow him to guide you in determining how much breast milk or formula to offer and how frequently. It’s ok if your baby stops breast feeding sooner than usual or does not finish a bottle, and it’s also ok if your baby prolongs breast feeding or needs you to prepare an additional bottle.
Build a strong support network
Feeding your baby is a demanding job and may come with some challenges. Reach out to friends and family members for support, and don’t hesitate to reach out to your Happy Family Coach.
How Often To Breastfeed. Healthy Children.org. Date accessed 21 Nov. 2015. Amount and Schedule of Formula Feedings. Healthy Children.org. Date accessed 2 Nov. 2009.